Jess Klein calls Hillsborough, N.C. home now, but prior to her move in 2016, she had the unique opportunity to immerse herself in the creative community of Austin, Texas for eight years, where she was able to hone her songwriting and performance skills in a big way. Still, as influential and inspirational as her time in the Lone Star State may have been, Klein’s initial musical awakening happened much earlier, and much further North.
“I grew up in Rochester, New York, listening to Motown records, primarily,” Klein recalls. “That did something special for me.”
“The Motown work ethic showed me that you didn’t have to do it all by yourself when it comes to making a great product,” she says. “You know, they always had the best songwriters, the best horn players, the best of whatever was needed to round out the recordings. It was a team effort every time. And the sound they achieved in the end made things like falling in love or having a broken heart seem like they really mattered.”
Yet, as highly as she regarded that sort of teamwork, Klein has mostly opted to go it alone since first discovering what she wanted to do with her life. “I was actually working on my thesis in Jamaica, documenting dub poets and studying the musical landscape of that country, when I realized that I was really interested in taking my love for creative writing and applying it to songcraft. Prior to seeing how ingrained it is in the culture there, I used to think that you had to be really famous or something to be able to pursue music as a career.”
Klein explains that after it dawned on her that “you only needed a guitar to get started as a folk singer,” that seemed like a good area of focus for her work. It wasn’t too long after she started down this path that Klein won a prestigious songwriting contest at the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, also garnering the attention of record company representatives from all over the country in the process. She subsequently began recording richly-flavored Americana albums for indie label Rykodisc, which in turn landed her enough recognition to be included on tours throughout the U.S., U.K., Europe, and Japan, both on her own and with such esteemed artists as Arlo Guthrie, Erin McKeown, John Fullbright, and Carlene Carter.
Interestingly, Klein says she has learned one very important thing about her own creativity over these last two decades: Always be willing and able to receive something good when it comes along. “I try to stay warmed up all the time, and ready to write whenever an idea hits me.” In recent years, however, it seems as though Klein’s warmth in this area has brilliantly burst into a full-on fire.
Emboldened by her time in Austin, the cross-country move that followed, and invigorated by her new marriage to fellow songwriter Mike June, Klein’s latest effort, an LP for Blue Rose Records called Back to My Green, showcases her expanded tastes and ever-evolving talents. The material on the album dances around multiple musical genres and forcefully grabs the listener with lyrical themes that touch on every imaginable aspect of the human experience.
This sort of content makes the most sense now to Klein. It’s the standard by which she measures success at this point, she says.
Fortunately, Klein should have plenty of opportunities for interacting with her target audience when she plays the Awendaw Green Barn Jam this week. And she definitely aims to please with her live performances.
“My current show is very intimate and completely solo, and it will feature a lot of my songs both new and old, and maybe a few covers, if that feels right on any given night. I will also be doing a spoken word piece about the desecration of the Jewish cemetery where some of my relatives are buried. In times like these, that one really seems to resonate with people everywhere.”
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